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4 Common E-Portfolio Mistakes To Avoid

Electronic portfolio projects have great potential to impact learning, assessment, and professional development. Yet expanding e-portfolios campuswide and sustaining the program isn't easy. Here are four pitfalls to watch out for.

e-portfolio mistakes to avoid

When Georgia Highlands College began its electronic portfolio project, the initial idea was that e-portfolio usage would begin in the Freshman Experience program and then the technology would diffuse across the campus to be used by every student. Instead, the entire project was cancelled after 16 months.

Sarah Hepler, director of the college's Faculty Academy and an instructional designer, researched the topic to understand what went wrong and shared her findings at the 2014 Online Lifeline Conference at Valdosta State University.

"I am interested in looking at failures in technology diffusion," Hepler said in a recent interview with Campus Technology. "I think there is way too much emphasis put on successes. I did some research in the literature on that fact. We don't publish much about failures, so there is very little information on them."

Importantly, her research does not point a finger of blame at anyone. "It is more complicated than that," she said.

CT spoke with Hepler and Teggin Summers, who was associate director of the e-portfolio program at Virginia Tech for six years before recently becoming director of that institution's Innovation Space, about what it takes to roll out e-portfolios campuswide. Although their experiences are quite different — e-portfolios have taken hold in every college on Virginia Tech's campus — both Hepler and Summers offered some observations on the key challenges of e-portfolio diffusion.

Mistake #1: Not Getting Enough Student Buy-In

Although Hepler was not on the software selection committee for Georgia Highlands' e-portfolio project, she interviewed several of its members as part of her research. The software they chose, eFolioWorld (renamed myeFolio in 2012), turned out to have a steep learning curve for students, who could have used more help understanding its value.

"Only the learning support students are required to take the Freshman Experience program, and many have outside responsibilities," explained Hepler, who taught in the program herself. The students had to learn a new piece of technology, which was required for every assignment in the class. "It was definitely high-stakes for those students," she said. "I think some of them didn't understand what the benefits of an online e-portfolio were over other products. They asked, 'Why can't I just make this in a Word document? Why is it good to have this online?'"

In order for an e-portfolio program to be successful, the technology usage has to be matched with learning outcomes, and that link needs to be communicated to students, pointed out Virginia Tech's Summers. A lot of the success comes from students having ownership of their work and knowing why they are doing the e-portfolio, whether it is for assessment, learning or professional development or a combination of the three, she said. "It is also important that they get feedback. We have seen groups at some schools that require e-portfolios but never respond to students, or the response is tacked on at the end of the semester. That sometimes inhibits success. There is some research coming out about the role of feedback with portfolios. The more feedback, the higher the engagement level."

Mistake #2: Not Enough Support for Faculty

Another pitfall at Georgia Highlands was that many faculty members believed the software was too complex. Although the vendor offers online support, the campus IT department was not involved, Hepler said.

The program hires a lot of part-time faculty, some at the last minute. "So through no fault of their own, they were coming in with very little training," she said, even though the director of the program created video tutorials for every step. "They were given a master course and expected to teach their students how to use it. But they had some problems with things like the online file management," she said. "It is not a difficult tool to use, but just the concept of uploading files and dragging them onto pages was new for many of them." Some used it incorrectly or inconsistently. "I had a professor come to me eight weeks into a 10-week class. He had not been using it with his students and he was trying to fix that at the last minute," she recalled. The dean had some complaints from faculty who felt stressed out by it.

Summers noted that she has seen situations at other universities where e-portfolio support was left to one person with many other responsibilities. "At Virginia Tech we were lucky, because at one point we had three full-time salaried employees, two graduate assistants and one undergrad intern," she said. "One graduate assistant was coding templates so that every group could have a customized template."

Mistake #3: Lack of Stakeholder Buy-in

Hepler believes one of the biggest challenges to diffusion was a lack of stakeholder support. The dean of the department where Freshman Experience is housed was supportive, but other deans weren't as interested, she said. "They didn't advertise it to their faculty members and just didn't seem to care much whether it was diffused or not."

There might have been some unrealistic expectations about the impact using e-portfolios would have on student grades, she added. "When it was time to diffuse it, there wasn't a statistically significant change, so that was a big part of cancelling it," Hepler said. "It wasn't the leap that they were hoping to see. It was hastily implemented and hastily cancelled. There is a tension between accountability and innovation that we are all feeling right now. Unfortunately, we sometimes pull the plug too quickly or are forced to because there are outside agencies looking at us."

Summers said the Virginia Tech program coordinates with as many campus stakeholders as it can, including the office of assessment, libraries and the center for teaching and learning. "The more you get them involved with other campus units, the better success you will see," she said.

One area where Virginia Tech has something in common with Georgia Highlands is that when it mandated the use of e-portfolios in its First Year Experience, it encountered resistance from some of the faculty. It was about 50/50, Summers said: "Half really embrace e-portfolios and find them valuable and take off with them." Now e-portfolios are not a requirement in the program. "For us, most of the success comes when it is a choice," she said. "When they fail to take off, it can be because people feel like they are supposed to use them but don't see the value in their curriculum. They feel either a top-down mandate or peer pressure but don't have a strong guiding purpose. It is important for them to know why they are using it and that it has value for their curriculum."

Mistake #4: Software Not Matched to Program Goals

Choosing the right software for your institution's goals can be tough, in part because those goals related to learning, assessment and professional development tend to evolve, Summers said. Some schools are tied to the built-in e-portfolio offering of their course management system. If the university's primary goal is assessment, then that is going to limit the technology choices, because you need to worry about storing data, privacy and reporting. Ownership of the e-portfolio is a big issue, she pointed out. Free platforms on the Web make it easy for students to take portfolios with them, but using those for assessment is difficult. "The technology choice is the million-dollar question," Summers added. Systems that do everything you want are harder to use and have a steeper learning curve. "And by the time you figure that out, your goals may change and you are wedded to a platform that doesn't work with your goals," she said.

The overwhelming feeling of the administration at Georgia Highlands was that the tool was not right for them, Hepler said. "I think if we had a tool that was easier to use right off the bat, that didn't require any training — and I don't know where you are going to find that — they would be more accepting. They definitely are supportive of an e-portfolio concept."

She expects another working group will look at software choices. "Even though 2010, when we chose that software, wasn't that long ago, that is a long time in this area of technology. If we gave it another go, I think it would be easier and be more accepted and the tool would be easier to use."

3 Ways to Do E-Portfolios Right

Teggin Summers, who served as associate director of the e-portfolio program at Virginia Tech for six years before recently becoming director of that institution's Innovation Space, offers the following tips to colleges and universities just starting out with e-portfolios:

  • Think strategically. Make sure your e-portfolio goals are at least somewhat aligned with the university or program's strategic plan. That will help tremendously with garnering support and, hopefully, resources.
  • Have a strategy for how you want to grow. Do you want to have a lot of small (or sometimes big) pilots and projects spread out across your university? Does that align with the culture of your university? Or can you align with various programs and colleges to focus your efforts in that one area? 
  • Plan for change. Make sure everyone on board understands that you will learn a lot along the way and that the e-portfolio strategy, goals and delivery will likely change over time. Think about a strategy for how you'll best implement that change.
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